Views of Marseille, France, with a sailboat in the port

In This Storied Port City an Hour from Nice, You'll Find Beautiful Beaches, Progressive Street Art, and Delicious Avant-Garde Tasting Menus

Marseille is often overshadowed by its glitzy Côte d’Azur neighbors. But, as Sara Lieberman discovers, France’s once-infamous port city deserves a closer look.

There is, perhaps, no other city in France as controversial as Marseille. A major European port and the second-largest city in the country, with a population of 1.6 million, it sparks intense debate thanks to its rough-and-tough reputation as once riddled with mob-related corruption, drugs, and crime. When I told friends in Paris I was going there for the first time, their reaction was either to be repelled ("Eeek, Marseille!") or ecstatic ("I LOOOVE Marseille!"). But even before I exited the train station, I suspected the place would seduce me. As a New Yorker who relocated to Paris, the concept of an urban environment that's a little worn around the edges — yet sits on the Mediterranean coast — is my idea of heaven.

Desperate to see the sea after several landlocked months, Jess, my Australian turned Parisian friend, and I headed straight for Les Goudes, a neighborhood on the edge of Calanques National Park, where cliffs twist down into turquoise coves. While it's only nine miles from central Marseille, it's a world away from the graffiti-covered streets.

We stayed in Les Goudes at the new Tuba Club (; doubles from $245), a five-room hotel and restaurant that, upon opening in July 2020, seemed to take up half of my Instagram feed — thanks to all the in-the-know Parisians who managed to make the trip south faster than you can say "la plage." Until the 1980s, the compound was a diving center frequented by Jacques Mayol, the inspiration behind Luc Besson's 1988 film The Big Blue. Now it's a stylish hotel designed by Marion Mailaender, who commissioned hand-painted murals, installed rustic ceramic pieces, and hung 70s-style beaded curtains in shades of rust and yellow.

Two photos from Tuba Club hotel in Marseille, including a guest room, and a beach lounge scene
From left: A guest room at Tuba Club, a new boutique hotel in the Marseille neighborhood of Les Goudes; Tuba Club guests can swim just off the rocks. Florian Touzet/Courtesy of Tuba Club

The hotel is the brainchild of Greg Gassa and Fabrice Denizot, who grew up together in Marseille. Gassa previously worked both in hospitality and fashion, while Denizot was a film producer, which explains the très hip crowd who descend in droves for meals and drinks served, quite literally, on the rocks.

After dropping our bags in our chic, minimalist room — dubbed a "cabana" because of its surfer-friendly curtainless shower (complete with a hose), knotted rope carpeting, and seashell-shaped lamps — we shimmied into swimsuits and headed straight for the cliffs. Here, yellow-and-white-striped chaise longues reserved for guests set against a sparkling seaside backdrop. It didn't take long for Jess to grab the snorkel gear on offer and dive in. The waves were too rough for me, so I ordered a Sumule (like a Moscow Mule, but named after a nearby calanque) from the handsome, shirtless waiter while keeping an eye on Jess's whereabouts — and my tan.

We stayed until day drinking became apéro hour, when the staff began rearranging the seating for incoming dinner guests. Thanks to the region's famously strong mistral winds, it's often impossible to sunbathe on the rocks without getting soaked by waves — which is exactly what happened the next morning, when we attempted a selfie before heading into town.

With salty skin and skirts sticking to our legs, we dried off in an Uber en route to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations ( This vast complex opened in 2013 and is spread across three buildings, including the 12th-century Fort St.-Jean. It has a dizzying number of rooms and rotating exhibitions — my favorite was "Vêtements Modèles," which focused on five key fashion staples (espadrilles, the kilt, and overalls among them) and how they've evolved over time.

It didn't take long for hunger to strike, so we cycled through the old port neighborhood using the city's bike-share system, passing fishing and leisure boats bobbing on the water as the day turned to night. Our destination was Les Bords de Mer (, a four-story, all-white stunner of a hotel with 19 rooms and a rooftop bar that's especially popular in the early evening. There we indulged in sunset Spritzes and a particularly delicious version of panisse, or fried chickpea sticks, a regional staple. We kept it light, because we'd booked a five-course tasting dinner at La Mercerie (; tasting menu $69), which offers dishes like ceviche with watermelon and Thai basil and, for dessert, a mezcal-infused pound cake with popcorn ice cream — all in an industrial-cool, candlelit atmosphere. (On a trip with uniformly excellent meals, this turned out to be the best.)

Two scenes from Marseille, France, including a small street in the Le Panier neighborhood, and a squash and crab dish at a restaurant
From left: An alleyway in the Panier neighborhood of Marseille, which is full of cafés and restaurants; butternut squash with crab and sea urchin at La Mercerie, a restaurant that specializes in natural wines. From left: Westend61/Getty Images; Adrian Bautista/Courtesy of La Mercerie

By this point, I was pretty enchanted by Marseille's mix of grit and glamour: how crumbling buildings are emblazoned with colorful murals, and how the smell of bouillabaisse mixes in with motorcycle exhaust. Nothing encapsulated the city's balanced, flexible identity better than Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse (, a Modernist apartment complex and UNESCO World Heritage site in the Ste.-Marguerite neighborhood. While the 1952 building is worth a wander for its architectural importance alone, designer and Marseille native Ora Ito holds an annual exhibition of contemporary art at Marseille Modular, or MAMO (, a gallery on its rooftop.

When we were there, the French street artist Invader, who is known for installing small mosaics on the walls and buildings of cities worldwide, had just completed a Marseille "invasion" that consisted of over 80 works around town (including one gracing an exterior wall of Tuba Club), which culminated with an exhibit at this famous architectural marvel. After an hour admiring the whimsical show, I decided to spend the remainder of our time in the city trying to spot other Invader pieces. I counted 41, with locations ranging from a bridge by the sea in the Endoume neighborhood to a brasserie off the city's main thoroughfare, La Canebière.

The rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, in Marseille, France
The rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse. Michael Grimm/Gallery Stok

The only thing we'd yet to do was see the calanques from the water, but because we hadn't really planned ahead, we had to settle for one of the crowded group boat tours that leave from the old port. Hot tip: be organized and book a more intimate private ride with a company like Bleu Evasion (; tours from $88).

We did manage to score a seat at the back, though, where we rested our legs on the railing and pretended we were alone with the gulls, the wind, and the salty sea air.

Back on dry land, with about an hour to kill before we had to catch our train back to Paris, we detoured for one last taste of the life aquatic at the kitschy nautical café La Boîte à Sardine (; entrées $15–$22). The garlicky prawns and fried fish balls were enough to officially seal the deal: Marseille, je t'aime.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline French Twist.

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